Monday, 3 November 2008

The Misunderstanding of English Criticism I

OK, bulky title, I know. I've added the 'I' because I oughtn't write this whole thing tonight; I should either do work or go to bed. However, I want to get at least a prelude out before I forget...

I read this in the comments on one of the latest Freakonomics blog posts:

"Complaining about word parsing is equivalent to blaming your ignorance on others. If you said what you meant, it wouldn’t be possible to parse your words.
These politicians simply need to learn how to speak and this won’t be an issue.
— Posted by Ryan"

Sorry? Someone doesn't seem to understand the fundamental characteristics of language. Let me enumerate the relevant ones.

1) Words/language cannot ever perfectly map onto the potential of human ideas.
2) Everyone attaches a slightly different signified to any given signifier.
3) Because of 1 and 2, it is impossible to say exactly what you mean so that everyone can understand it, though there are ways that you can get very close.
4) Parsing is more than just straight-up comprehension. We hide nuance between words (a fancy way of saying that word choice reveals more than just denotation and connotation--why did he use this word when that one might seem to do?), and part of parsing is pulling that out.
5) Learning to speak well is not the same as learning to speak so that all meaning rests on the surface, because, in light of #4, some meaning will always lurk deeper if you look for it.

The point is, if you use those techniques to say what you mean as closely as possible, there are always still ways of pulling more meaning out through careful analysis. And this process need not be ridiculous, tortured, obscure, or Freudian (which are probably all pretty equivalent). It certainly can be, but it needn't be. If you want examples, look at feminist, Marxist, or eco-critical theory. In these schools, the meaning often floats pretty close to the surface, but is generally ignored. If you look for it, it's obvious and pretty concrete--though you can get terribly esoteric, too, if you are silly enough to try.

I have seen similar ideas in assorted places, such as the introduction to Ender's Game and, sadly, in some of Stephen King, especially Danse Macabre (though he redeems himself in places by dissing the truly ridiculous criticism and owning up to/committing less ridiculous criticism himself).

Maybe more will come of this, but that's all literary theory, which is likely not the best topic of blogosphere conversation. But, hey, you can read it or not, so I suppose I might as well post it if I ever feel like it.

And I'll just point out that this whole conversation on the blog was in response to one of McCain's aide's public statement, where he likely misspoke. The person Ryan accuses of complaining about parsing was appalled by the amount of discussion that revolved around the meaning of his mistake, and also his choice of the word "lame" to describe something as not very funny. I think a lot can be said about that particular word choice, and not enough has been yet. Other than that, yes, there was too much 'parsing' of the phrase. My complaint is not about whether this parsing is necessary, but what role parsing plays at all. I think Ryan got it wrong.

And while I'm speaking of McCain and the election furor, let me just point out that history might be made tomorrow night. I suppose history is made every second of every day, but this is something that'll hit the books--and of nations other than the great and terrible US, at that.* It could be the case that in the next few days, a man who is not entirely Caucasian will be elected into office. He is not, of course, entirely black, as he is often billed. It seems to be the case--have I said this before?--that if you are mixed, (white) people will generally slide you as a default into whatever part of your lineage is not white. So your mother is white and your father is black. You're black (like Obama). Your father's Irish but your mother's Cree? You're native. No, not Metis. Native. It's just easier to classify you that way. I'm not sure it is why we think that way--and, I'll be honest, it's my habitual cognitive mode--but it seems to be the case and it's not quite fair. Something else to work over. The point is, at least genealogically speaking, Obama is as white as he is black. Maybe that's not culturally the case, though I'd have to say it'd hard to believe a college-educated senator who claims to be seperate from white culture. Anyway, tomorrow we will see whether there will be a paragraph about the first not-entirely-white American President attached to the date of 2008.

And then we'll have four years to find out what, exactly, this man means by 'audacity,' 'hope,' and 'change.' Because, really, I have no idea.

*That's a pun AND an allusion, folks, if you haven't picked it up. Parse that!

1 comment:

Jon Wong said...

This was an interesting post. I may take it and run with it. By the by, on the whole "mixed race" thing, I find that very often, people are identified with the other culture because *they* identify with the Caucasian culture. They are, by default, "white" not only because they are, in part, white, but also because they usually (in my experience) identify with the white culture or at least interact with(in) a Caucasian community. So people tend to think "well of course he's white... but you know what else?! He's also (insert mixed race)" so they will identify with the aspect that isn't the status quo.

In Obama's case, he also looks black...

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